Thursday, November 28, 2013

Blue Sky Marathon

While I like to indulge in 50 and 100 mile races, there’s nothing like a trail marathon in brisk fall weather – the frosty start, leaves turning gold and orange, and a pair of burning lungs.

Two weeks before the Blue Sky Trail Marathon, I still had yet to run more than 4 miles at a time. After bruising my medial collateral ligament in the Leadville 100, I had barely been able to jog more than a few minutes before my right knee ached. My recovery was nevertheless rapid thanks to the amazing work of physical therapist Steve Wade at CSU, but I entered this race with zero conditioning, unless you consider one 40-mile week adequate preparation for a marathon.

The Blue Sky Trail Marathon begins with a deceptively easy two-mile warmup on the groomed Soderberg Trail before turning straight up Towers road. At that point a lead pack tore away with Corey Hanson and a few other runners, among them eventual winner Kyle O’Brien.

When we turned off Towers and onto Herrington the race took on a very different character, with six or so guys really hitting the dirt, skidding around switchbacks and muscling up awkwardly-sloped trails. And then the downhill. It’s impossible to describe the exhilaration and fear that comes from running fast down a technical trail. Stout trail is full of loose rock and boulders wedged into the hillside, and it’s impossible not to feel a little afraid of wiping out bounding downhill.

 More or less falling down Stout Trail (photo by Eric Lee).

Soderberg trail gives you just a moment of time to collect yourself and mentally prepare for the meat of the race – the out-and-back on the Blue Sky trail. I pulled into the lead for a brief moment on the Blue Sky trail before Kyle rocketed into the lead. I caught him on the downhill into the Indian Summer North aid station; he stopped and I rolled through, and from there I assumed the lead up Indian Summer. It was here that things started to hurt, and I realized that I was going to have to work insanely hard to hold on to it. 

 Descending into Indian Summer North (photo by Erin Bibeau).

Pausing at Indian Summer South for water, I ceded some of my lead before finally losing it at the top of Devil’s Backbone. Within a few moments, Kyle had seemingly floated over the jagged slickrock and boulders, and here I was stranded in second. The 3-mile section around the Backbone gives you no relief, with very few runnable stretches and plenty of awkwardly-slanted routes. Slog it out and hold on to second for now, I thought.

I got a rush descending the Backbone to Indian Summer South as I saw Kyle in the distance, but by the time I hit the Indian Summer climb I could feel myself running out of steam, again. I popped a gel on the way up and said a prayer to the running gods, and by the time I reached the descent into Indian Summer North I was able to open up my stride and regain my composure.

Gettin' that gel packet ready for disposal (photo by Erin Bibeau).

Kyle had a lot of time on me, and with 4-ish miles left I was going to have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. As I was nearing the top of the climb out of Indian Summer North I could see Justin Liddle leaving the aid station looking fresh. I attacked the hairpin turns and boulders on Blue Sky despite the burning in my legs. 

I started sprinting when I saw the finish line filter into view through the chainlink fence and the leaves of the locus trees. Second, 3:26:12 – faster than last year, and beyond my expectations given the recent bodywreck at Leadville.

What's next? I'm going to focus on some strength training at the expense of mileage until the end of the year, when I'll transition to high-mileage training once again. I'll be doing the Sean O'Brien 50 mile on February 1st, the Badger Mountain 100 on March 28th, Leadville in August. I'll be taking my preliminary exams in May, so I'm not sure I'll be able to swing Quad Rock, but I'd love to do the Wyoming Marathon again and take a crack at the course record (I wasn't far away when I did it in 2012). As for the rest, who knows, sometimes it's fun to enter races at the last minute.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Leadville 100: DNF

What was otherwise turning into a fantastic race for me fell apart between Twin Lakes and Treeline inbound.

About two miles into the climb out of Twin Lakes I felt a sharp pain in my left Achilles and could feel some tendon fibers jumbling around. Fast forward to Half Pipe where I started to get severe pain, and by the time I reached my crew at Treeline I could only hobble.

Nearly an hour later I reached Outward Bound (77 miles) and was unable to walk. I called it after I was unable to loosen up a very stiff, sore Achilles and had apparently developed pes anserine bursitis in my right knee. Just sitting still was a painful endeavor at that point.

I had been having a great race - starting in around 35th at May Queen and working my way up to 13th, I had run a very controlled and comfortable first 50 miles, eating 3 gels per hour and keeping within 2 pounds of my starting weight. I don't think I've had a race, especially at altitude, where I was able to knock back gels so easily.

A more detailed report will come, but suffice to say I've never walked away from a race more physically trashed.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Quad Rock 50

Been awhile since I’ve been here but I’m going to try to revive a somewhat irregular posting schedule. I’m really not down with the whole weekly summary thing, and more interested in posting about runs and races when they give me a creative spark.

I’ll move through some updates in chronological order.

First off, the Quad Rock 50 went well. Despite falling behind on hydration in the heat, I managed to slog it out and take 12th in 8:52, at the tail end of a good pack of guys – Hinterberg, Bryan Williams, and Troy Howard. I started the race brisk but manageably, keeping a very conservative pace up Towers Road and the climb up Horsetooth Rock trail. By the Mill Creek descent I was sinking into a nice groove, and I essentially coasted on up over Arthur’s Rock and down Timber trail. 

The climb up Timber was a nice kick in the shorts, a reminder that the course is damn tough (11,000ft of gain!). The valley trails were starting to bake as I started the climb up Mill Creek, aka El Gran Pendejo. I certainly agree with others on this point: the Mill Creek climb on the second loop of Quad Rock is the hardest part of the course, mentally and physically. You’ve run a touch over 33 miles and have ascended and descended Horsetooth and its accompanying ridgeline four times. The trail is steep, at times requiring you to clamber up rocks and roots, and oh do those breaks in the trees heat up. You need grit to pull yourself through.

 The meadows below Arthur's Rock in Lory State Park.

As I reached Towers it started sprinkling, and I used the brief respite from the intense midday sun to rally and pick off a few runners on Westridge. At the bottom of Horsetooth it was clear that I was way, way dehydrated. I stumbled up to the final climb up Spring Creek and spent a good chunk of time at Towers aid chugging water. I knew that aid from here on in was going to be sparse, and I didn’t like the soreness I was feeling in my kidneys. I hit the descent with conviction and turned onto Stout ready to bring this all home.
On the first loop, I lofted myself over all of the downed tree trunks on Sawmill. I figured I could do the same maneuver after 46 miles of running: big mistake! I put my right foot on a trunk, and when I tried to push myself up and over, my quad didn’t respond. Instead, I smashed into the tree and curled around the front. For a minute, I panicked and thought I broke something. After a brief episode of limping and shouting expletives, I was back to ripping it down the contour trail – this time gingerly stepping over each tree.

By the time I made it to Arthur’s aid, a thunder cloud had parked itself over the finish area and was peppering the sky with lightning. All hell broke loose as I was pelted with hail and cold rain over the last two miles, thunder clapping all around, until I reached the finish line. Finally, the sky cleared.

Given the amazing runners in this race, I’m more than happy with my performance. As always, though, there are things to improve.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Badger Mountain Challenge 100

It’s easy to fall into the trap of “what ifs”. What would have happened if I hadn’t needed to spend 10 minutes at every other aid station re-duct-taping my heel to fend off blisters? What if I had been totally on top of my nutrition and hadn’t gotten dehydrated and hypoglycemic in the middle of the race?

At the end of the day, I played smart but aggressively. I did what I needed to get myself to the finish and did it with enough speed to take first place overall, break the course record by over 2 hours, and PR by 3 hours and 49 minutes over my finish time last year. 

 Not exactly a remote start!

 Crewman Terry ready to dish out the tough love.

 Crewman G-man ready to chase after me in the Highlander and force-feed me.

It’s cool but not cold, overcast, slightly humid – perfect running weather. I sneak up to the starting line with a single hand-held water bottle amidst a sea of hydration packs and the running equivalents of a fanny-pack: I both look the part of the fool who doesn’t know what he’s getting into and the minimalist who needs nothing more than a bottle of cola and some gels. There’s something to be said about racing light, because with fewer items to worry about, all I can do is plow forward.

The race begins with a brisk but manageable pace up to the Badger Mountain summit, and I chat with a Catalonian about running in Spain versus running in America. Here, long distance running is an underground sport without fanfare. There, it’s a spectator event. Also, the mountains in Spain make the Rockies seem like child’s play. But we’re running in Eastern Washington – have you seen these talus jeep trails? 

 Taking the early lead up the Badger Mountain contour trail.

There’s a group of four front runners – myself and three other guys close in tow. At the crest of Candy Mountain we’re seconds apart, but I put nearly a minute on them in the fast, incredibly steep mile-long descent into the gully at its base. From here until mile 56, I’ll keep the lead, but only just. 

These first few peaks are so familiar, I go into auto-pilot on the next climb and almost miss the turn off of Red Mountain to the Hedges Winery aid station at the top of the gently-sloped Sunset Avenue. Each iteration of the BMC involves some bushwhacking off Red Mountain. 

 Rolling down the rock-gnarled Red Mountain.


 Bushwhacking down to the vineyard.

The next hour of road-running is some relief from running on gnarly jeep track but it gets monotonous. I marvel at vineyards awkwardly angled up Goose Hill while I cruise past peeled-paint houses with yards littered with rusted machinery. I can hear a classic rock radio station and the sound of trucks rushing by on the freeway. A rooster crows and a dog barks. Not a person in sight.

McBee aid station, usually a party with all sorts of hot food and salty snacks, is still just a pile of drop bags when I roll in. Showing up before the aid stations get set up will be a constant theme, a sign that I’m either running too fast or having a hell of a race.  I refill some of my gels and chews, knock back some almond butter, and get moving up the incomprehensibly steep McBee Ridge. It’s here where I start feeling hot spots developing on my heels. Looking back down the slope I see more than a few figures creeping up behind me. This race is just getting started.

 Starting to feel the hot spots at McBee Parking, but otherwise feeling good!

I put a few more minutes on the chase group on the rolling, gnarly jeep track to McClelland Butte, and spend nary a few seconds making some adjustments to my shoe with a volunteer’s pocket knife at the aid station. Before I know it I hit my favorite part of the course – the long, rolling downhills toward the old Yakitat aid station. Turning back up toward the high ridge line, I straddle tilled fields of wheat and jeep track laden with barbed wire and scrub. Let the loose soil sap your feet or barbs of both the natural and artificial flavor lick at your ankles. I’ll take a little of both.

As the sun settles in overhead, the clouds begin to break and I feel the heat. I empty my bottle just before dropping off onto the primitive jeep trail to the mile 36 aid station. The dirt is lumpy, the grass in clumps, with piles of rocks, a few dead scrub bushes, and the occasional rusted-out tractor part. It’s strange to imagine someone ever using this road for anything but the race.

At Phelps I clean my heels and duct tape them to keep my hot spots in check. The clouds have cleared and it’s getting warm, sweat soaking my feet, and my shoes feel too tight – perfect conditions for developing a race-ending blister. I amble out onto the blacktop road that will take me to the edge of Prosser, gingerly dodging semi-trucks as I cross Highway 221. The course doglegs through drainage ditches and undeveloped fields as it meanders its way around suburban Prosser. A steep, sandy trail weaves around a dilapidated trailer park before dumping me into a nice neighborhood. It feels a bit surreal, but that might just be the oppressive sun overhead. I’m relieved to enter the long, steep uphill to the Lincoln aid station.

I spend time near the top of the climb re-taping my heel, all the while watching runners hot on my heels inch their way up the gravel road. I laugh – figuratively and literally, my heels are hot today. I bust out of the aid station and continue the slog to the top of the ridge, watching the second-place runner cruise through without stopping. I jog the mile-and-a-half over to the start of the downhill at the turn-around. The first quarter-mile is impossibly steep, perhaps a 40% grade, but soon I hit the runnable dirt road that will take me 1500 feet into the valley below.

At the turn-around I’m dying. My heels are getting raw, I’m dehydrated, and all I want is something salty to eat. The aid station has trail mix, cookies, and other sweet things. And I can see runners rolling down the road behind me. I chug isotonic solution, eat a cheese sandwich, and have a volunteer spray my back with water. Shedding my collared shirt, I strip down to a tank top. The second place runner enters the aid station just as I leave. 

I want to feel defeated, but I don’t give in. This is the sort of pressure I need to keep moving. I end up jogging the entire way back up the hill, power-hiking my butt off up the steep grade at the top. I’ve put a minute on the man in the blue shirt. If he wants to beat me, he’s going to have to suffer more than I do. I hit Lincoln and re-tape for a few minutes. I’ve put enough time on him running on the top of the ridge that he still doesn’t catch up to me before I leave. If all I can do the rest of the way is outrun him enough so that he doesn’t catch me while I’m taping, so be it.

I run the section through Prosser, but it’s painful. The blacktop is baking beneath my feet, but a few very lost raindrops manage to fall out of the clear sky. A Chihuahua and some baby Huskies chase me around the edge of the trailer park while residents cheer me on. As I pass a farm house on the road to the mile 56 aid station, a family asks how long I’ve been running. “A little more than 9 hours”. And I’ve got about the same amount to go.

At Phelps I’m in tatters. My heels are on fire and I can feel some open sores, while I’m still trying to rehydrate. Gordon dumps some water on my back to cool me off and I almost pass out. I mumble a few incoherent words to them while they pack my headlamp; I probably won’t see them before nightfall so I need it, just in case I really fall apart. I lose the lead as the second-place runner pushes onward. I want to feel defeated, but I don’t give in.

Late afternoon sun during the chase to McClelland Butte. You see why I love this race?

Instead, I give chase. For every three feet he runs up the hill, I run four. For every three feet he power-hikes, I hike two. It’s a long, hot climb, and by the top I’ve emptied half my bottle. I’ve still got an hour of running to go before I can make it to McClelland Butte, and that’s if I haul. I’ve made up half the ground I lost taking care of my heels. I slowly erode his lead over the next hour, inching closer on the downhills and holding onto him on the uphills. He knows I’m back here, but by holding back a bit I want to make him think that I’m not strong enough to overtake him.

South of the Horse Heaven Hills, farms extend to infinity. Expanse.

I catch up to him as he leaves the McClelland Butte aid station. He’s feeling fresh and wants to keep moving. Instead of retaping my heel, I grab a donut for the road, sip broth, and get my rear out of there and after him. The rolling dirt trail gives way to talus again as we grunt up to the top of McBee Ridge. I refill my water as I’m still making up a deficit, but I’m feeling refreshed. The sun is so low in the sky, even the rocks cast long shadows. I retake the lead on the long contour road down to the base of the ridgeline, blasting by the now second place runner. I’m back in the race and feeling good, so good that I make it to McBee Parking at mile 75 without needing a headlamp. 

 The first time I've ever been all smiles at mile 75.

My feet are killing me but I don’t care. I’ve got the lead and I’m not taking the time to retape them. I break into full stride on my way down the road to the dirt turnout that signals the worst part of the course – the “rolling”, doglegging trails that hug the side of Goose Hill. The jeep trails are dusty and sandy, cutting V’s into the hillside as they sharply drop and climb 50 feet. I stuff my water bottle into the pullover tied around my waist and crawl on my hands and knees. As darkness falls I turn on my headlamp, keeping it on low so that the runners behind me can’t see where I am. I talk to Brandon at Orchard – he just gotten it set up before I arrive, and he rushes off to set up the Dallas Road aid station. The front runners are crushing the course, well on record pace.

I finally make it out of the insanity and onto the gravel roads that wind their way through the Goose Hill vineyard. I know the way to the frontage road and Dallas Road aid station from here, so I shut off my headlamp. The farther ahead that the trailing runners think I am, the better. My breath fogs up and I slip on the pullover. It’s relaxing to just lean forward and run in the darkness, stars overhead.

Dallas Road is rushing to get their aid station set up as I roll in. I sip broth and quickly nibble on a few odds-and-ends before heading out. I stumble through alfalfa fields, keeping my focus on the hill in the distance. The flagging takes me through scrub that scratches my legs, but I’ve run 87 miles - all of my physical and emotional feelings blend into one, and scratches from a few bushes pales in comparison to all the rest. The climb up to the top of the hill is steep and sandy, sapping my energy with each step as my feet keep slipping backward. On the way down I nearly miss the turnoff into an orchard; my mind is scattered, so I better eat another gel. I’m relieved to hit the dirt road on the side of the alfalfa field that will take me back to Dallas Road.

I tape my heels for the last time at Dallas Road. Mile 91, 9 more miles to go. It’s not a great feeling because these are going to be the longest 9 miles of my life. I fight back thoughts of resting in a warm bed and eating food, instead focusing on the pain in my heels. That’ll force me to finish faster.

As I jog off up the frontage road I see Megan Hall and another runner hot on my heels (my heels, so hot right now). I tell myself that I have to run all the way to the base of Candy Mountain, the second-to-last climb. I can’t stop for any reason, at all. I haul for nearly 40 minutes, sometimes slowing down but always keeping one foot off the ground. Feeling queasy, I eat some almond butter to try to settle my stomach.

Dropping down into the ditch and entering the culvert is like journeying to another world. My footsteps echo around the corrugated metal wall as mice and beetles scurry about. It’s soothingly humid. I can hear the rumble of cars on the freeway above. What would the drivers think if they knew someone was running a 100 mile race right under them? I can see the end of the culvert, the blackness absorbing the light from my headlamp. Just before exiting I pass a pair of red panties.

I emerge onto the steep dirt trail up to the top of Candy Mountain. It was so easy running down almost 17 hours earlier, but now it’s painful as my heels press into the back of my shoes. A brilliant, bright yellow moon rises in the distance and paints the dark hillside an eerie dark orange.

Suddenly my chest tightens. I lean over and paint the soil my own shade of sickly yellow, spending the rest of the climb vomiting. I must have eaten too much over the last road section. I keep making relentless forward progress and force fluids down. By the time I reach the top of Candy my legs are shaky but I break into a trot down the steep hillside. Without switchbacks these hills are quad-killers.

Ambling into the last aid station, I sip broth and soda, eat some oranges, and get moving up the west side of Badger. My heels are on fire while my ankles are chafed to hell from the duct tape, but what’s another half an hour? Within minutes I hit the contour trail at the top of the mountain and begin easing into the long downhill to the finish. I can see lights from the houses of Kennewick sprawled out to the north, lights from the vineyards, alfalfa farms, and wind turbines filling the expanse to my south, lights from the farm houses and freeway exits like islands in the abyss. I can see a faint headlamp near the Goose Hill vineyard, and some headlamps dancing near McBee ridge in the far distance. At peace with everything, I don’t want this race to end.

I have run 100 miles. There is nothing left for me here. I will go off into the West...

As I jump down the steps at the base of the mountain the finish line is cast in a brilliant whitish-blue light. Crossing the line, I finally lay myself down and ease the pain in my feet. 18:10. Catharsis. The realization that in a blink of an eye, the adrenaline rush is over. Opening my eyes for the first time, I climb back onto my feet, drink some water, and smile.

Please amputate my feet. And give me food.

No matter what race day deals you, you measure your success by how you overcome it. I had far from a perfect race, falling apart in the middle 15 miles and fighting off hot spots and chafing in my feet nearly the entire way. But they don’t matter, because I came to Badger Mountain to conquer myself. Slowly, race by race, I'm learning how to do just that.

 Hanging around at the start of the 15K (later) that morning with Scott. Go Terry!